A Collaborative Tool Settles Into Drug Research | October 1, 2007 Issue - Vol. 85 Issue 40 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 85 Issue 40 | p. 20
Issue Date: October 1, 2007

Cover Stories: The Big Picture

A Collaborative Tool Settles Into Drug Research

Software and database vendors aim to supply researchers with tools to extract quality from quantity
Department: Business
ELNs have become a ubiquitous tool for drug discovery chemists.
Credit: Symyx
ELNs have become a ubiquitous tool for drug discovery chemists.
Credit: Symyx

Electronic laboratory notebooks (ELNs) have progressed from the periphery of pharmaceutical research three years ago to becoming central and ubiquitous tools among chemists in drug discovery and development. They are beginning to catch on with biologists and clinical researchers as well, according to vendors and users.

Research managers say the technology got a slow start due to scientists' reluctance to switch from standard paper notebooks to an electronic system that would put their work into a shared database. They also held off buying software in a field where many small developers were leapfrogging each other with frequent new-product releases.

Both situations have evolved. Laboratory managers say scientists now are finding that the software, which allows them to develop personal information workflows and rapidly access data, has more benefits than drawbacks. Researchers are also seeing the upside to sharing their work.

Meanwhile, the roster of suppliers has consolidated. Last month, most of MDL Information Systems, the third largest ELN supplier, was acquired by market leader Symyx, leaving a sector dominated by Symyx and CambridgeSoft.

Jason Bronfeld, executive director of pharmaceutical development informatics at Bristol-Myers Squibb, says the technology is making inroads in drug development. "We have seen an evolution in vendors' thinking regarding what ELNs are supposed to be," he says. "In their original incarnation, they were largely paper on glass."

Suppliers now offer ELNs with workflows catered to specific kinds of research, Bronfeld says. "So a notebook for process research would look very different than a notebook for biopharma development," he says. "I think the next incarnation of the notebooks will no longer have anything to do with a metaphor for what we do on paper."

BMS is installing analytical development, biopharmaceutics, and process research ELNs supplied by Symyx, Bronfield says. The firm uses CambridgeSoft ELNs in discovery research, where about one-third of the staff has gone electronic, adds Alastair Binnie, BMS executive group director for discovery informatics and automation. "Our goal is that in a few years, they will all have it."

According to David Dorsett, senior vice president of software product strategy at Symyx, scientists in drug discovery and development use different ELNs. The challenge for software developers is helping these two ELN user groups meet in the middle. "In research, there is a collaborative element having to do with a hand-off between functions," he says. "Discovery to development is the stereotypical hand-off. But the reality is it is not that simple."

In fact, Dorsett says, the sharing of information between drug discovery and development is carried out in a multistage process "in which things gradually ease through a gate review between the two functions. One of the goals that our customers share in using notebooks is to facilitate the collaborative aspects with less reuse of raw data."

Louis J. Culot, vice president of enterprise applications at CambridgeSoft, agrees, noting that his firm develops user-configurable software to match research work processes. "Our goal is to understand workflow, to move from individual to collaborative workflow, and to be sure ELNs are better than paper," Culot says.

Although the technology is still evolving, Dorsett and Culot say user buy-in is no longer an impediment to ELN adoption. Scientists who resist collaboration resist it only in certain contexts, Culot says. "In others, they want it, like when you are submitting samples of analytical work for tests such as structural elucidation or purity confirmation," he says. "That is a case where you desire collaboration, even in the paper world."

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